It was worth a try. For decades, one administration after another, Republican and Democratic alike, failed to successfully address the metastasizing threat posed by the dictatorship that rules North Korea. So President Trump took a different tack: He played Mr. Nice Guy. He twice trekked to Asia to meet with Kim Jong-un, the country’s mass-murdering young despot. He flattered, sweet-talked and — apparently, at least — befriended him.
Encouragingly, Mr. Kim suspended testing of nuclear weapons and the missiles that can deliver them. He made a commitment — repeatedly, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — to permanently end his nuclear weapons program in exchange for American economic and diplomatic concessions.
But at a summit in Hanoi last month, Mr. Kim demanded that five U.N. resolutions containing sanctions be lifted in exchange for dismantling a single nuclear facility. He would keep his nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Mr. Trump, recognizing that a bad deal is worse than no deal, abruptly headed home.
Then, in Pyongyang last week, Choe Son-hui, a North Korean vice foreign minister, a former English-language interpreter who is believed to have Mr. Kim’s ear, told reporters that the negotiations may have reached a dead end, and that nuclear and missile testing may resume.
Relations between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump are “still good and the chemistry is mysteriously wonderful,” she told reporters, but “an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust” has been fostered by Mr. Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. “I want to make it clear that the gangster-like stand of the U.S. will eventually put the situation in danger.”
Mr. Pompeo responded diplomatically: “I saw the remark that she made. We are hopeful that we can continue to have conversations and negotiations.” Added Mr. Bolton on Friday: “We’ve discussed their reaction and our reaction. I’d like to speak further within the U.S. government before we respond.”
I’m rooting for those within the U.S. government who will argue that it’s time to apply sticks, rather than dangle carrots, time to begin a “maximum pressure” campaign — an option Mr. Trump favored then shelved prior to the Singapore summit last June. Could maximum pressure lead Mr. Kim to the conclusion that nuclear weapons imperil rather than protect his dynasty? We’ll never know unless we try.
Among the many actions now required: Imposing harsher and more comprehensive economic sanctions, and severing North Korea’s connections to the international financial system. Chinese and other non-Korean banks now conducting illicit business with the Kim regime need to be sanctioned as well.
North Korean laborers abroad are virtual slaves. Their living conditions are horrific, and the Kim regime skims hundreds of millions of dollars from their paltry pay checks. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2397 mandates the expulsion of all such workers by 2019. But most governments won’t meet their obligations unless they feel diplomatic pressure from the United States and — this would be nice — from U.S. allies.
Also, U.N. sanctions prohibiting North Korea from obtaining oil and fuel through ship-to-ship transfers can’t be enforced without enhanced surveillance, patrols and interdictions.
North Korea uses its embassies and other diplomatic outposts to engage in covert commercial and financial activities. American diplomats need to persuade host governments to crack down.
What else, beyond this economic squeeze, should keep Mr. Kim awake at night? In Singapore, Mr. Trump showed him a 4-minute video promoting the benefits if he gives up his nukes and pursues peace, security and economic prosperity with energetic American support. However, at one point the video cuts to shots of missiles launching and fighter jets scrambling. The film then seems to burn, and there’s an explosion — images intended to suggest what President Trump has called “fire and fury.”
Mr. Kim needs to be convinced that such a scenario is credible. Joint U.S./South Korean military exercises is one way to send that message.
Another is for President Trump to ask the Pentagon to give him a new report on military options. Implementation would be a last resort, of course, but not an unimaginable one. On the contrary, as Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said almost two years ago: “What’s unimaginable to me is allowing a capability that would allow a nuclear weapon to land in Denver.”
If we do not prevent Mr. Kim from acquiring nuclear weapons that he can deliver to American cities (and/or use for blackmail), efforts to prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran from following suit are sure to fail as well. The list of rogue and adversarial nuclear-armed powers will grow thereafter.
Years ago, we should have started seriously preparing for such a disastrous contingency. How better to establish deterrence than with a comprehensive missile defense system capable of shooting down any missiles launched anywhere in the world?
Such a system is technologically feasible. No treaties restrict us. But for decades, American leaders, Republican and Democratic alike, have dawdled, procrastinated or insisted that robust missile defense is too expensive. Is it?
Rebeccah Heinrichs, a missile expert at the Hudson Institute, answered that question last Friday at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ panel. “Consider the value of what you’re protecting,” she said. “Compare that to the cost of the missile defense system.”
Think about that: What will it cost — in dollars but not just in dollars — to bury our dead and rebuild Denver, New York, Washington or Los Angeles following a nuclear attack that we failed to prevent?
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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